Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words

Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words

By Miriam Reed
Paperback Publisher: Barricade Books (April 2004)
Kindle Publisher: Church and State Press (June 2016)
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Praise for Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words

“Miriam Reed presents the most dramatic episodes of Margaret Sanger’s dramatic life in a compelling and thought-provoking way. With a vivid commentary that constitutes a biography in itself, Reed has assembled many of Margaret Sanger’s most meaningful writings, speeches, letters and diary entries so as to create a biographical autobiography. Reed makes Margaret Sanger, the far-from-perfect heroine of her own story, come alive. A must read for students of women’s history.”
—Alexander Sanger, Chair, International Planned Parenthood Council, New York

“Miriam Reed’s intriguing selections from Sanger’s papers and correspondence bring Sanger back to life in all her brilliance, passion, power, foibles, and eccentricities.”
—Gloria Feldt, President, Planned Parenthood Federation of America

“Invaluable collection of [Sanger’s] seminal, intelligent, and compassionate writings … accompanied by Reed’s vibrant and illuminating commentary and a charming introduction by Sanger’s granddaughter Margaret Sanger Lampe.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist

Excerpt from Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

From Part II: The Reformer

26. The First World Population Conference

With the success of two international conferences behind her; secure financially through the good graces of Noah Slee; her two sons satisfactorily in college; the American Birth Control League apparently on track; the Clinical Research Bureau, open since 1923, under the secure direction of Dr. Hannah Stone; Sanger was free to devote her energies to what would prove to be an altruistic adventure.1

In the The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger had sought herself to put Birth Control on a scientific basis. Now she sought for birth control the backing of the scientists themselves. Her approach was politic: to assemble the most prestigious researchers in social science, demographics, economics, and biology, that they could consider scientifically the population increase and its possible threat to world peace and the world economy.2 For not only was the world population growing explosively, but Germany, Japan, and Italy were demanding that their peoples propagate and sounding unsettling growls about lebensraum.

Yet no one seemed to want to discuss population growth, certainly not the League of Nations, whose purview it obviously was.3 “The Economic Conference which I have just attended in Geneva failed to discuss the population question and it causes a great deal of comment and much criticism,” noted Sanger in May 1927.4 But by the time she wrote this, she already had in motion her plans to bring to the very doorstep of the League of Nations an awareness of the population problem.

It would seem that the population growth could not be sensibly discussed without, at some point, in some way, including a discussion of birth control. Nevertheless, only with the understanding that birth control would not be discussed would most of the eminent scientists, particularly the European scientists, consider attending Sanger’s First World Population Conference.5

It should be noted that this conference, which met from August 31 to September 3, 1927, in Geneva, Switzerland, was the first world conference ever to deal with the population issue, that it was organized almost single-handedly by Margaret Sanger, a woman, and that Sanger did so aware of the male prejudice she faced, aware also of the serious need for the population problem to be investigated, aware of the need for world education on this issue, hoping against hope that as these scientists investigated all aspects of this serious problem, that birth control might possibly be considered relevant thereto. In the latter regard, she was to be disappointed.

During the conference, the papers of two of the speakers “came perilously near mentioning the forbidden word Malthusianism, but as for birth control, it was edged about like a bomb which might explode any moment.”6

This was scarcely a surprise. As the date of the conference had approached, newspapers were carrying such remarks as,

Sir Bernard Mallet, the president of the World’s Population Conference, about to meet in Geneva, stated to me this morning that birth control or neo-Malthusianism forms no part of the programme of the conference.7

Or from an interview with Mrs. Sanger:

Mrs. Sanger, who has been helping with preparations for the Conference assured me that despite her presence here her pet subject has been definitely kept out from the conference, there being no place for it in scientific discussion.8

Obviously, birth control does have a place in a scientific discussion, and Sanger had done more than help, having spent the better part of two years organizing the conference, rounding up the two hundred delegates, scaring up funds, leaning heavily on Noah Slee’s generosity, attending to the innumerable details, and paying her own expenses to boot.

The extent of prestige of the names she brought to her conference was impressive. The presidency of the conference had been accepted by Sir Bernard Mallet. Sir Bernard was former president of the Royal Statistical Society and a good friend of Sir Eric Drummond, current secretary-general of the League of Nations.9 Among the many, many other famous attendees were Julian Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, and Dr. F. A. E. Crew (who had made hens crow and roosters lay eggs!).10 These male names were all listed on the conference program. But that the names of the women who had worked so assiduously for the prior year, not only doing the grunt work for the conference but raising monies so that the delegates might travel and attend the conference—that their names should be deleted from the conference program was a bit difficult to swallow. As Sanger recalled the incident,

The storm broke the Friday before our scheduled opening Tuesday August 31st. Proofs of the official program had just come to me for my approval. Sir Bernard came into my office and looked at them. “Well, we’ll just cross these off,” he said, drawing his pencil through my name and those of my assistants.

“Why are you doing that?”

“The names of the workers should not be included on scientific programs.”

“These people are different,” I objected. “In their particular lines they are as much experts as the scientists.”

“It doesn’t matter. They can’t go on, Out of the question. It’s not done.”11

The entire female clerical staff struck in protest. Sir Eric Drummond explained to Sanger, “These distinguished scientists would be the laughing stock of all Europe if it were known that a woman had brought them together.”12 Sanger accepted the inevitable, spent a day coaxing her staff to return to work despite the insult, and in the service of her higher goal, was able to open the conference with all preparations in place.

The conference was covered by hundreds of newspapers and received glowing reviews.13 Out of the conference came a new demographic organization; the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, which lives on in 2003 with some two thousand members and on its website acknowledges that Margaret Sanger organized the First World Population Conference in 1927.14 And by 1928, Dr. F. A. E. Crew had established a department on Contraceptive Research at the University of Edinburg.15

For entertainment, the delegates had been taken one night by boat to visit the chateau of Madame de Stael and, on another evening, to dinner and dancing at the fifteenth-century Chateau de Prangins of Katherine Dexter McCormick, the remarkable woman who three decades later would, with Sanger’s encouragement, make development of The Pill possible. Not surprisingly, the gentlemen delegates did not hesitate to enjoy the gratuitous hospitality in the homes of two women.

Sanger summed the entire experience in letter on September 22, 1927, from Geneva to Hugh de Selincourt.

[Noah] was such a darling all thr’u the conference & then at the end he seemed to regret the work put into it, because he had not realized the b.c. was not to be in the front in it at all. The Scientists were not very courageous I’ll admit and the Catholic influence was strongly felt.

Then some of those upon whom I had relied to stand by in the time of war—failed & compromised—so it goes.

I am now working on the papers & editing the discussion for the final volume & find it a great satisfaction to blue pencil the opinions I don’t like Revenge.16

Her revenge was slight enough. The scientific papers were dense and difficult, and Sanger alone did all the editing, then published the proceedings. She insisted on being listed editor of the proceedings.17

It took another twenty-seven years before there was to be another World Population Conference, another forty before a woman’s conference—the 1994 Cairo conference, advertised as the first to be convened by women in support of woman’s rights—was held. Once again, Margaret Sanger’s courage and contribution remain unacknowledged.18

Editorial, Birth Control Review
June 1927

We are able to announce this month the preliminary plans for the World Population Conference. We give also in our news columns a brief account of the program of the International Economic Conference, held at Geneva in May, under the auspices of the League of Nations. Our readers may be disposed to wonder why the League, which can devote three weeks conference to the World Economic situation, does not give equal attention to the World Population situation. The answer is to be found in the official program and the documents of the Economic Conference, which show that the statesmen and scholars who direct the activities of the League of Nations, do not realize that, even in the field of economics, population has a very important bearing. They do not, or they will not, grasp the fact that overpopulation underlies almost all the great international problems. But though it was left out of the agenda, it seems impossible that the three weeks conference did not bring out much discussion of overpopulation. If this unbidden guest did force its way into the economic deliberations, it will have prepared the minds of many representatives of the League to give a fair hearing to the World Population conference, which three months later is to sit on the doorstep of the League. One great step forward has been taken this year, in the fact that scientists of all nations have taken the initiative in calling the first World Population Conference and in making Geneva, the home of the League of Nations, the place of meeting. When the League is awakened to the importance of the problem, it will find the material for its solution ready at hand in the proceedings of six Neo-Malthusian Conferences and of the World Population Conference of 1927.

Preliminary Notice19
The World Population Conference

The World Population Conference, first of its kind ever to be held, will meet in the Conservatoire at Geneva, Switzerland, on August 31, September 1, 2, 1927, under the auspices of leading scientists and scientific organizations of many countries. It will be, in effect, a conclave of many biological, sociological, and statistical authorities of the world, who have gone far in the study of the population problem, but who have never before assembled at a common meeting table to exchange their views and co-ordinate their knowledge.

Its Purpose and Possibilities

The nations of the world are keenly aware of their individual population problems; they are generally cognizant of the population problems of their near neighbors and all distant countries. It is known that the question of population growth holds possibilities of menace to the future of civilization, and yet the world population problem is one of the few great issues of today that have not been the subject of concerted international action.

One of the main purposes, therefore, of this Conference is to study the question from an international point of view. Such a conference must be strictly scientific, and accordingly eminent men and women in the fields of biology, economics, and sociology will be invited to participate. By this procedure it is hoped that some 100 or 150 leaders of scientific thought from various countries will be given an opportunity for mutual interchange of ideas and for the recognition of the common elements of the whole population question.

It is possible that from such a conference will come an international movement, which, through its findings, will help in the solution of other financial, economic, and health problems that are today the cause of grave concern.

Membership of the Conference is by invitation.
Application should be made to The Secretary,
The World Population Conference, 199, Piccadilly,
London, W.I.


1 The First American Birth Control Conference, November 11-13, 1921, and the Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference, March 25-31, 1925, both in New York City.

2 Sanger naively expected the male scientists to make the obvious connection between the contribution birth control could make to limiting population. But such a sensible idea was beneath the notice of the erudite male scientists.

3 Sanger had evidenced her awareness of population pressures as early as 1914, when in the September-October issue of The Woman Rebel, she published an article by B. Liber, M.D., “Birth and the War Machine,” which opens with a discussion of Malthus principles and closes despairing that “people continue to produce a surplus of soldiers and laborers for their rulers.” Throughout her editorship of the Birth Control Review, articles on overpopulation, population growth, and the relation of population to war were in practically every issue. See Birth Control Review 1917-1928 passim.

4 Katz, Selected Papers, p. 456.

5 Birth control, while slowly working toward respectability, continued to be not quite acceptable, and women, as Sanger was to find out, were definitely not welcome within the all-male scientific community.

6 Sanger, An Autobiography, p. 387.

7 Daily Express, August 30, 1927, Container 233, The Papers of Margaret Sanger, Library of Congress.

8 August 22, 1927, ibid.

9 Sir Bernard Mallet (1859-1932) brought in the interest of his friend Sir Eric Drummond (1876-1951), who was secretary general of the League of Nations from 1919 to 1933, then Great Britain’s ambassador to Rome (1933-1939), and later deputy leader of the Liberal Party (1947-1951).

10 F.A.E. Crew was a trained physician, a professor of animal genetics at the University of Edinburgh, and a man of good senses. On being asked to define the perfect man, Crew replied, “There isn’t any. Define us a heaven and we will tell you what an angel is.” Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 147.

11 Sanger, An Autobiography, pp. 385-386.

12 Ibid., p. 386.

13 Lader, Margaret Sanger, p. 348.

14 On the World Wide Web at

15 Katz, Selected Papers, p. 481.

16 Ibid., p. 458.

17 On the closing day of the conference, Sir Bernard acknowledged Sanger’s work on the conference to the assembled delegates, who gave Sanger a rousing three cheers.

18 “From Geneva to Cairo: Margaret Sanger and the first World Population Conference,” Sanger Papers Project Newsletter, No. 8 [Fall 1994], pp. 1-2.

19 Reel 123, The Papers of Margaret Sanger, Library of Congress.

Miriam Reed earned her Ph.D. from the Comparative Literature Department of University of California, Los Angeles, in 1980. She has published Oscar Wilde’s Vera and has taught English composition and rhetoric from the basis of her textbook, How to Write Great Prose (almost) Instantly. Miriam Reed is an actress and the writer of her one-woman shows on powerful women: Louisa May Alcott: Living Little Women; Oscar Wilde’s Women; Talking Abortion, and of course, Margaret Sanger: Radiant Rebel.

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  1. This is a must read! I’ll be giving this to my brother (a retired history teacher) for his birthday, in September.


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